Release Date: October 1st, 1968
Directed by: George A. Romero
Written by: John Russo, George A. Romero
Music by: William Loose, Fred Steiner (stock recording)
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Judith Riley, Keith Wayne
Image Ten, Laurel Group, Market Square Productions, The Walter Reade Organization, Continental Distributing, 96 Minutes
Night of the Living Dead is one of those movies that broke a lot of ground. Looking back at it now, it is nowhere near as gory or horrifying as modern zombie films but without its existence, a whole sub genre of horror would have never existed. Big franchises like The Walking Dead owe their existence to this film and the men behind it, director George A. Romero and writer John Russo.
I wasn’t around in 1968 but from what people have told me, this film scared the bejesus out of the masses. The thought of people coming back from the dead to roam the Earth as cannibals was a terrifying thought, especially since it hadn’t really been a thought before this movie hit theaters. What is now a common thing in our entertainment, was once something brand new.
Zombies did exist before Night of the Living Dead but they were typically of the voodoo variety and more like mindless minions controlled by an evil mastermind of some sort. 1932’s White Zombie with Bela Lugosi is a good example of what zombies were before Romero and Russo came along.
This film isn’t just ballsy in that it delves into some new terrifying territory. It also makes a black man the hero of the film in a time when civil rights tensions were at their highest. He also has to deal with a weaselly and wimpy white guy whose actions cause the group more harm than good.
The focus of the film is not the living dead outside of the house but the tension within the house, as the group of strangers has to learn to work together to survive the night. Otherwise, they’ll most certainly perish as the main course in a zombie buffet line. This concept would go on to be the focal point of many zombie tales after Night of the Living Dead. Hell, that is the whole shtick of The Walking Dead, which has existed in comic book form for over 150 issues and in television form for over seven seasons and two other seasons with its spin-off.
Night of the Living Dead is neat in that it shows that a fairly compelling film can be made with a very low budget. Romero created a motion picture that feels much larger than it is. Sure, it takes place in one location, primarily, but the world feels large and lived in. The use of news footage on television and reports over the radio added a lot of depth to the story. The zombie hunting posse showed a larger civilized world coming in to help and their presence created a sense of hope. Maybe things weren’t so bad away from the farmhouse? Maybe things were getting under control and the threat was almost over? Romero, however, doesn’t end this film in a positive way and that tone eventually carries over into his other Dead sequels.
George A. Romero and John Russo would have a falling out after this film. They both created their own series of sequels. Romero went on to make Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and a bunch of other sequels years after those. Russo, who maintained control of the “Living Dead” name, as it was his story that gave Romero a framework to work with, was behind the Return of the Living Dead series of films that started in 1985. The first of those films is still, to this day, the greatest zombie comedy of all-time. Sorry, Shaun of the Dead lovers. Don’t worry, I love it too.
Night of the Living Dead was so influential that it spun off into two separate franchises, a stellar 1990 remake and a slew of other zombie properties and franchises that have gone on to generate billions of dollars. Maybe Romero and Russo should have patented their new kind of zombie.